Wednesday, 27 April 2016

A Quick Peek Under the Covers: Empire of Dirt

A Quick Peek Under the Covers

Episode 3: Empire of Dirt

Welcome to another episode of A Quick Peek Under the Covers, in which we look at cover versions of songs which, bucking the usual trend, are as good as or better than the originals.

This time around, we're going to look at "Hurt", by Nine Inch Nails, and the cover by Johnny Cash.

Image credit Interscope Records


Nine Inch Nails, an industrial rock band, is the work of a Cleveland boy made good, Trent Reznor. Indeed, Reznor is Nine Inch Nails, using other musicians sparingly.

"Hurt" is from Nine Inch Nails' album The Downward Spiral, an appropriate name given the song's lyrics (to which we shall turn shortly).

While Wikipedia indicates the song's overall message seems to be in some dispute among fans and critics, that it has to do with an addict (likely of heroin, given the reference to needles) taking stock of his life is generally agreed-upon. Indeed, given Reznor's own struggles with depression and drug abuse at the time, it's likely has autobiographical significance.

(I've never actually listened to a Nine Inch Nails song. So this will be an educational experience.)

(I nearly went with Nine Inch Nails' official VEVO video, but ultimately decided against it; it being a video of a live performance, the sound of thousands of jubilantly screaming fans probably ruins the effect.)

The song has few other covers. Johnny Cash recorded his cover as part of his "American" series of albums; the cover of "Hurt" appears in the fourth album in the series.


The overall structure of "Hurt" is quite straightforward: there is an intro, verse section, a refrain section, then a repeat of the verse and refrain sections, and then a second, modified refrain with outro; the outro is significantly longer in the Nine Inch Nails original than in the cover. Using music theory notation (which is somewhat algebraic), we might say the song's structure is AB/AB/B' (B' or B-prime being the modified refrain with outro).

Given that in both versions, simplicity is part of the song's effectiveness, this uncomplicated structure is quite suitable.


The lyrics, unsurprisingly for a Nine Inch Nails song, are uncompromisingly bleak.

I'm particularly fond of the lyrics for the second verse, and for those of the chorus, in which the protagonist is taking stock of his life:

I wear this crown of shit (**)
Upon my liar's chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here

What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

(**) Cash replaces 'shit' with 'thorns'.


In the original, Reznor sings over a combination of acoustic instrumentation - a guitar and piano - and electronic instrumentation and sound effects, the latter two being a key part of industrial music. The chord structure in the A sections is i-III-iv, with the tonic chord including some ornamentations (including an augmented 4th/11th), and in the B sections, the structure starts as VII-i-VI-III, then becomes VII-i-VI-III.

In the cover, Cash doesn't change the chord structure appreciably. He does alter the instrumentation considerably: acoustic guitars, pianos, and some synthesised winds/strings, with nary a scratch or diesel engine sound to be heard.

What Makes the Cover Work

The factors which make the cover version superior to the original are, in my view, as follows:
  • Johnny Cash's rich, but obviously ailing baritone voice is just a better fit for a song about taking stock of one's life than is Reznor's thin and (for lack of a better term) "whiny white man singer" voice - much in the same way as an elderly Joni Mitchell pulls off "Both Sides, Now" with much more gravitas than her younger self did. The richer tone allows him to carry it off with far more conviction than Reznor's over-soft delivery.
  • While granting that the instrumentation in the original is de rigeur part of the genre, it strikes me as trying too hard to thematically support the lyrics. The more coherent, simpler instrumentation of the cover, less concerned with being in-your-face about how depressing the song is, just gets out of the way and gives the lyrics a chance to speak for themselves, while still providing a powerful musical backdrop.

In a sense, Cash and the "American" series album production team saw the great song at the core of "Hurt", stripped away the parts of the original that got in the way of that core, and built upon the core to create something transfigured.

While analysing music videos is not really part of the purposes of this series, it's worth contrasting the two. Wikipedia notes that the Nine Inch Nails' video is as follows:

To film the video, a scrim was dropped in front of the band on stage, onto which various images, such as war atrocities, a nuclear bomb test, survivors of the Battle of Stalingrad, a snake staring at the camera, and a time-lapse film of a fox decomposing in reverse, were projected, adding visual symbolism to fit the song's subject matter. A spotlight was cast on Reznor so that he can be seen through the images. Compared to the live renditions performed on future tours, this version most resembles the studio recording with its use of the song's original samples.

Again, it has the feeling of trying too hard: nuclear bomb test? Decomposing foxes (in reverse)? Stalingrad? (I mean, really, Stalingrad?) What does this have to do with a heroin addict contemplating the bleakness of his existence?

The Cash video, on the other hand, with its contrast of the opulent (but rotting) feast, the decrepit House of Cash museum, and the clips of Cash's vital youth as an "outlaw country" star, combine with the lyrics and Cash's own haggard appearance to create the experience of a man nearing the end of his life, after a long and hugely successful career, and when examining it all, ultimately finding only emptiness and meaninglessness.

I don't think I can really conclude this post in a way to do the Cash cover justice, so I'll sign off with the words of author and teacher Tom Reynolds, whose book I Hate Myself and want to Die, which examines some of the most depressing pieces of pop music (in the English-speaking world, anyway), also reviews "Hurt":

The drug theme is transformed into a nostalgic reflection of a life that touched so many others yet leaves the man himself questioning whether he meant anything at all.

He did.

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